ON BITCHING

What is a bitch? The noun has both a literal and a number of metaphorical meanings. Literally, it means a female dog (or fox, wolf). In past times it meant a lewd or sensual woman, though that usage is now obsolete. It has also been used to mean a man, as in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Is your lazy bitch of a brother gone out yet?”

A conventional meaning of the word is a malicious or treacherous woman, or something outstandingly difficult or unpleasant. The verb, “to bitch”, means to be spiteful, malicious or unfair, as in to bitch about a person. It can also mean to grumble or to complain about something.

The word “bitching” is also used adjectively in modern slang, so as to mean hellish, despicable or unpleasant. It is used adverbially, as an intensifier:

We drove…in a bitching snowstorm

Modern slang has a tendency to reverse the meaning of words. Thus, the word “wicked” now means “brilliant”. And so, it comes as no surprise that “bitching” can also mean wonderful, great, excellent.

The online Urban Dictionary enthuses about the word “bitch”, calling it one of the most versatile words in the English language.  And, of course, women have sought to reclaim the word for themselves.

 

Bitches get stuff done!

In  2008, the US TV show Saturday Night Light broadcast a segment commenting on Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be nominated the Democrats’ Presidential candidate.  This popularised the catchphrase “Bitches get stuff done”. The show’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, playing two newscasters, are evidently enjoying the joke:

Fey: And then what bothers me the most is that people say Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that. She is! She really is. And so am I. And so is this one [points to Poehler].

Poehler: Yeah, deal with it!

Fay: You know what? Bitches get stuff done!

The audience roars with laughter.

But bitching also has an evil dimension. It can be a sinister and destructive force, as I now explain.

In 2006, the High Court awarded a former City executive, Helen Green, £800, 000 after she was bullied by female co-workers in what a witness dubbed the “department from hell” at Deutsche Bank.

What had happened to Green? Her career at the bank had started promisingly. She was given a responsible role as Company Secretary Assistant in the bank’s Secretariat. She performed well and received a number of promotions.

According to the court report, when she began her job in 1997, she was targeted by:

four women with whom she worked in close proximity, Valerie Alexander, her personal assistant Fiona Gregg (Taylor), the telephone directory administrator Daniella Dolbear, who reported to Ms Alexander, and Mr Elliston’s secretary Jenny Dixon. The claimant alleges that she was subjected to childish, hostile and inappropriate behaviour, and harassment and bullying from this group, and that no adequate or effective steps were taken to prevent or control such behaviour when it was brought to the attention of both her managers and the defendant’s HR department.

 

Toxic behaviour

What did this behaviour consist of? It included giving Green the silent treatment, whilst talking amongst themselves, so as to ostracise her; excluding her from staff social activities, such as lunches;  laughing when she walked past the part of the office where they worked; making crude and lewd comments; hiding her mail; taking her name off internal circulation lists, and removing papers from her desk, such that she had to keep her desk locked.

Dolbear in particular engaged in deeply unpleasant behaviour,  as Greene told the court:

Standing inches away from my chair and chatting very loudly out loud, making it difficult for me to make or receive telephone calls. There was no need for Danni to stand this close to me other than as a means of harassing me;

Making raspberry noises with each step I took, if I was walking from one part of the office to another;

Shouting to the other women “err what’s that stink in here?” and then saying “it’s coming from over there” (referring to me)

After Green took Dixon to task for leaking confidential information from a staff recruitment process to the other women, she said that Dixon and Dolbear’s treatment of her worsened:

They stopped talking to me completely. They wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence in front of others. In the morning they would come in and quite literally say hello to everyone individually and ignore me. If I went round to their area to ask a question they would pretend I wasn’t there.

This affected Green so badly that she eventually had a nervous breakdown. In March 2000, she went to the HR department to explain the problems she was facing. HR referred her to a doctor for “stress”. He in turn referred her to a psychiatrist. She was put on anti-depressants and received a course of specialist counselling.

However, HR did nothing to address the root cause of Green’s problems, namely, the bullying by fellow workers.

After a holiday at the end of October 2000, Green could not face returning to work. She was admitted to a private psychiatric hospital on 8 November 2000, where she was kept under suicide watch for two days. She was discharged on 24 December 2000. These facts were not contested by the employer at trial.

 

The tip of an iceberg

At trial, it emerged that Green was not the only person to be bullied by these dreadful women. On the contrary, her case was the tip of rather a large iceberg.

Green called a former secretary who had by then (perhaps unsurprisingly) returned to her native New Zealand, Clare McCall. She confirmed that she had also been subjected to similar treatment. McCall blew the whistle in her exit interview, but HR did nothing.

Would you believe it? A further witness, named Heather Cook, also testified to similar experiences:

She too was bullied and harassed by the group. As a result she suffered from anxiety and depression requiring treatment with anti-depressants.

And there were more victims, according to Cook:

She also gave evidence that others in the department had been subjected to similar treatment, namely Annabelle Withington, Jeanette White, Carmel O’Brian, and Linda Brown.

Withington left the company. White complained to management, in damning terms:

I have sought to function in what is acknowledged to be a dysfunctional department. I have on occasion asked for help to provide an environment in which I can do my job free of politics and harassment. If at times I have expressed this with less tact than might have been called for, or expected, I can only say that under the circumstances I have attempted to overcome or rise above situations as best as I could, with no small cost to my own stress levels

…. I cannot smile in the face of extreme bitchiness and mob culture. I do not seek friction, it surrounds me and at times it is impossible to move through without a reaction.

… … I wish I could express more clearly the serious problems within the department, for I feel strongly that until these are dealt with, individuals will continue to be caught in its web.

Cook said in her witness statement that “the group would tailor their behaviour towards each of their victims in order to cause as much upset as possible”. She referred to the experiences of yet another victim named Dawn Wheelan, who arrived in April 1997:

Dawn was an extremely tidy person and would always keep her desk clear and the area around her desk tidy. In Dawn’s case, the bullies would deliberately leave cupboard doors open near to her desk, knowing that she would feel compelled to get up and close them. They would then repeatedly re-open the doors after she had closed them. They would also leave lines of dirty cups across her desk so that she would have to tidy them up. Both of these may seem like trivial matters to someone who was not upset by an untidy environment, but it caused Dawn to be upset.

She described the group’s treatment of Green as “slow systematic mental abuse”.

A former temporary secretary name Collette Wisener-Keating also came forward with a withering assessment of Deutsche Bank:

I have never experienced an atmosphere like that in the defendant’s Secretariat anywhere else I have worked. The bullying was subtle, but effective enough to affect those who were its targets. The manner in which it was done was really quite unpleasant.

 

Management failings

The (male) management at the bank were, frankly, useless. The head of the department testified that he tried not to get involved! A male colleague of Green’s recounted that:

he had been walking behind Ms Taylor and Ms Dixon on the staircase when he had heard one say to the other “God did you see her face. We nearly got her crying this time”, and the other one said “good – who does she think she is?”

He told Green that if nothing was done to stop the bullying, she would have a nervous breakdown. After she was hospitalised, she returned to work for a period in March 2001, but had a further relapse after only six months, after further bullying by the selfsame male colleague.

She left the bank for good and did not work for four years. She later embarked upon a teaching career, as it was clear that given her medical history, a high-stress working environment was no longer suitable for her.

And, predictably,  she sued for damages for personal injury and harassment.

Later, the Head of HR admitted that the bank had failed in its duty of care to her.

 

The judge’s findings

Mr Justice Owen concluded that Green was the victim of harassment:

She was subjected to a relentless campaign of mean and spiteful behaviour designed to cause her distress. I do not accept the defendant’s contention that Ms Alexander was not a part of the group. I have no doubt that she was the dominant personality within it, and that she both positively engaged in the bullying behaviour, and encouraged the others. Secondly I am satisfied that the behaviour amounted to a deliberate and concerted campaign of bullying within the ordinary meaning of that term.

He called the four women’s behaviour oppressive and unreasonable. He went to make very stringent criticisms of the bank, which he found had failed in its duty of care to Green and was vicariously liable for the acts of its staff.

The line managers knew or ought to have known what was going on. This was a long standing problem. A number of others had been bullied. …… A reasonable and responsible employer would have intervened as soon as he became aware of the problem. The claimant’s managers, Mr Clark and Mr Elliston as Head of Department simply failed to take any or any adequate steps to address it. That was frankly acknowledged by Mr Elliston. Mr Clark acknowledged that he was aware of the complaints that the claimant was making, but did nothing about them. In short the management was weak and ineffectual. The managers collectively closed their eyes to what was going on, no doubt in the hope that the problem would go away.

Had the claimant’s managers intervened as they ought to have done, there were obvious steps that could have been taken to stop the bullying. It ought to have been made clear that such behaviour was simply unacceptable, and those involved warned that if they persisted, disciplinary action would follow. If necessary they could have been moved to a different location or to a different department. But by whatever means the bullying could and should have been stopped.

It is also to be noted that there was a culpable want of care on the part of the defendant’s HR department. That was conceded by Mr Walker, Head of the HR department, who said in evidence that an investigation into the bullying by the women should have been undertaken by HR following the series of meetings between the claimant and Ms Warner in March/April 2000, and also following the exit interview given by Ms McCall on 10 October 2000. But of course by that time the behaviour by the women had come to an end.

I am also satisfied that the bullying gave rise to a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury. Such behaviour when pursued relentlessly on a daily basis has a cumulative effect. It is designed to make the working environment intolerable for the victim. The stress that it creates goes far beyond that normally to be expected in the work place. It is in my judgment plainly foreseeable that some individuals will not be able to withstand such stress and will in consequence suffer some degree of psychiatric injury. Furthermore the claimant was a person who, to the knowledge of the defendant, had suffered depression in the relatively recent past and had been prescribed anti-depressant medication. She was therefore to their knowledge more vulnerable than the population at large.

This was a landmark case. The conduct of Deutsche Bank and of the impugned employees was atrocious. They deserved all they got, including the reputational damage that goes with a published judgment.

A cautionary tale for employers, then. And a salutary reminder that extreme bitchiness can be toxic and dangerous.

 

Sources

Online Oxford English Dictionary

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2006/1898.html